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No Deal Likely on Federal Estate Tax Extension

December 22, 2009

While the House recently passed a bill to reinstate the estate tax in 2010, last week the Senate rejected a measure to temporarily extend it.

As we previously announced, the House of Representatives voted to permanently extend the present 45% estate tax rate, and the $3.5 million (per person) exclusion from estate taxes.

However, arguments over the tax rate and the exclusion amount developed in the Senate. Democrats in general were ready to approve the House version, while some Republicans preferred a lower tax rate of 35% and a higher exclusion of $5 million. Therefore, as a result of a deficit of 60 supporting votes, the Senate did not pass an estate tax extension.

If the Senate adjourns without getting an extension before January 1st, Congressional leaders have said they plan to enact a retroactive fix early next year. Generally, when a law is passed, it becomes effective on the date of passage. However, this law would be an exception. In order to avoid a complete repeal of the estate tax in 2010, this law is expected to contain a provision making it retroactive to Jan. 1, 2010.

Even when setting aside the issue of the constitutionality of a retroactive tax, the possibility of imposing an estate tax retroactively would create administrative and planning headaches for financial planners, accountants, lawyers and heirs of estates.

However, given that there are not 60 votes yet in the Senate to support a temporary extension of the estate tax, it is not clear whether there will be a sufficient number of votes next year either. We will certainly keep you up to date as this matter develops. However, in the meantime, you should keep in mind that the current legislation and 2010 repeal does not mean that there won’t be any tax consequences for those who inherit assets or receive gifts.

The good news is, if Congress doesn’t act, there will be no federal estate taxes for 2010. Businesses, stocks, and other assets can be passed on to heirs without being hit with tax rates as high as 45%.

The bad news is that there are still state estate taxes to consider. Further, there will be only a limited step-up in basis. Under current federal estate tax laws, the assets of the deceased get a step-up in basis to the fair market value at date of death (or 6 months later). The benefits to the step up in basis are realized when heirs sell assets with little to no capital gains tax consequences. In 2010, if the estate tax is repealed, the step-up in basis is limited to $1.3 million for the overall estate, plus $3 million for assets transferred to a surviving spouse. According to a Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation, it is estimated that losing the step up in basis would affect a projected 71,000 estates in 2010.

Additionally, there will also be changes in gift tax rates, which are 45 percent in 2009 but will be reduced to 35 percent if estate taxes lapse in 2010. Finally, and most importantly, if Congress doesn’t take any action at all, in 2011, the former law regarding estate tax levels is reinstated, meaning that all estates over $1 million will be taxed, with federal tax rates up to 55%.

Again, we will certainly keep you up to date on these issues as we move forward into the New Year. However, you should also consider the various other benefits to estate planning beyond the strategy to minimize or eliminate estate tax. Other issues such as asset protection, dysfunctional family situations, disabled beneficiaries, disposition of retirements assets and business succession issues can be just as important, if not more so, than the traditional transfer tax issues.

Please feel free to contact our office if you would like to discuss these matters in further detail.